Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Cory Joseph drains game-winning three at buzzer for Raptors (VIDEO)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Cory Joseph made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Toronto Raptors an 84-82 victory over the Washington Wizards on Saturday night.

Kyle Lowry scored 27 points for the Raptors, who before Joseph’s 3 had not led since early in the first quarter.

Joseph took DeMar DeRozan‘s pass in the corner and nailed the winning shot. He finished with 12 points as Toronto won its fourth straight despite tying a season high with 22 turnovers

Bradley Beal scored 20 points for Washington, which lost its fourth straight despite allowing its fewest points of the season.

John Wall added eight of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, but missed a pair of late free throws that opened the door for Toronto to win in regulation.

With 3.0 seconds left following those misses and a timeout, DeRozan got the ball, drove toward the baseline and kicked the ball out to Joseph in the left corner. Joseph rose and sank his 3-pointer as time expired.

Washington failed to hit a field goal over the final 4:24 to fall to 1-8 in its last nine regular-season games against Toronto. The Wizards did sweep the Raptors in the first round of last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs.

Toronto trailed by as many as 10 before Lowry’s 3-pointer from the left wing tied it at 70-all early in the fourth.

Washington answered with a 10-2 run before Toronto scored the next seven points, with Lowry’s 3-pointer off DeRozan’s kickout making it 80-79.

After DeRozan and Lowry each missed shots with a chance to take the lead, Wall and DeRozan traded free throws. But Wall missed a pair next, setting up the final sequence.


James hits game-winner, Cavs edge Nets (VIDEO)


CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James made a running hook shot with a second left and scored 26 points, giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a 90-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night.

After Joe Johnson‘s three foul shots tied the game with 15.2 seconds left, the Cavaliers called timeout and took the ball at midcourt.

James took the inbounds pass, dribbled to the top of the key before cutting to the right of the lane and hitting a hook shot over Brook Lopez, the Nets’ 7-foot center.

James scored 10 points and added a key steal late in the game to help Cleveland (13-4) remain unbeaten at home in nine games.

Kevin Love also scored 26 points for Cleveland, which played a sluggish first half and didn’t take its first lead until midway through the third quarter.

Lopez led Brooklyn (4-12) with 22 points. Johnson added 17 for the Nets, who fell to 1-10 on the road.

Tristan Thompson‘s basket with 1:13 remaining gave Cleveland an 86-85 lead and James made two free throws with 16 seconds left, but Johnson was fouled by J.R. Smith attempting a 3-pointer.

Johnson hit all three foul shots, but James made sure the Nets’ strong effort fell short.

James helped Cleveland rally from an 83-76 deficit in the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer and a three-point play before the Cavaliers took the lead on Thompson’s basket with 2:44 remaining.

Brooklyn built the lead to double figures in the second quarter and led 50-44 at halftime. Cleveland took its first lead at 61-60 on Love’s 3-pointer midway through the third. Matthew Dellavedova‘s 3-pointer gave the Cavaliers a 69-68 lead going into the final period.

Mo Williams scored 14 points for the Cavaliers while Thompson had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Thaddeus Young had 16 points and 12 rebounds for the Nets.


Scott Skiles says he would not have traded Tobias Harris to Magic

Tobias Harris, O.J. Mayo
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Back at the start of the season in 2012 and into early 2013, Tobias Harris was buried on the bench in Milwaukee — glued there by coach Scott Skiles. At the trade deadline that February, the Bucks sent Harris to Orlando  — where he blossomed into a quality forward that is part of the Magic’s future.

The Magic now coached by Scott Skiles.

Did Skiles want Harris moved at the time? No, he told Journal Sentinel (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

“He was pretty mature as a person even then,” Skiles said of Harris, who left Tennessee after his freshman year to enter the NBA draft. “In camp he got sick; he fell behind.

“At that time, we just felt (Luc) Mbah a Moute was a better defender and (Mike) Dunleavy was a better offensive player, and Tobias didn’t get as many minutes. But we were high on him.

“Not that anybody would have listened to me, but if I would have still been the coach, I would not have been for moving Tobias. That’s for sure, if somebody would ask my opinion.”

Skiles was under pressure to win back then in Milwaukee (he was let go at the end of the season) so you can’t be surprised he was playing the veterans he trusted over the young player who would be making mistakes.

Skiles trusts Harris now; he’s giving him more than 30 minutes a night. While he’s played some small four to start the season, Skiles has switched the lineups and now has Harris starting at the three (Channing Frye is at the four). In that role he has averaged 18 points through two games, Harris has looked more comfortable. We’ll see if that sustains, but you know Skiles is giving him a chance.


DeMarcus Cousins out for Kings vs. Warriors Saturday

DeMarcus Cousins, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams
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As if Golden State was not already a prohibitive favorite Saturday night.

DeMarcus Cousins, who has missed the last two games for Sacramento with a strained back and that will continue Saturday. Our old friend Bill Herenda tweeted it first.

Not only are the Kings 1-6 without Cousins, but they were also on their way to beating Charlotte Monday until Cousins had to leave the game.

Golden State will likely be without Harrison Barnes in this game after spraining his ankle in the last game. Expect Andre Iguodala to get the start, or if interim coach Luke Walton doesn’t want to mess with the bench rotation he could go with Brandon Rush.